The decision on whether to surrender the authority of the US Congress to amend and potentially improve trade agreements goes to the very heart of whether the United States respects democracy. If members of the House and Senate cannot check and balance executive branch choices that will define the economic future of the country, then the ability of the American people to petition for the redress of economic and social grievances and to have those grievances addressed by their elected representatives is severely undermined. That is what is at stake with debates about whether to eliminate basic congressional oversight of trade deals, via the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority that President Obama seeks.
The vote Thursday by the Senate to shut down debate on a measure to provide Obama with this authority was the first step in the deconstruction of the democratic processes by which citizens can influence not just trade but economic policy. If the Senate now approves fast track, and if the House goes along with the plan, then the ability to alter or improve sweeping new trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be lost. All that will remain is a take-it-or-leave-it vote on final approval of a deal negotiated behind closed doors and without adequate scrutiny by the American people or their elected representatives.
It came when 13 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in supporting a cloture motion Thursday. Thirty-one Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and five Republicans opposed the move to shut down debate about amendments and to effectively restrict meaningful discourse on what the measure’s sponsor, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, described as “quite possibly the most important debate that we’ll have all year in Congress.”
Among the senators who are current or potential presidential prospects, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, voted “no,” as did Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. So, too, did Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. But Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida sided with the Obama White House and the corporate interests that have advocated aggressively for fast track and the TPP.
The Senate’s 62-38 decision to end debate on the president’s proposal to fast-track what could be the largest trade deals in American history was a travesty. Senators who had put up some resistance last week rushed to approve a proposal before a scheduled holiday break. “Instead of getting this bill done by Memorial Day, we should get it done right.” argued Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. “We should not vote on fast track without debate on amendments that would stand up for workers and manufacturers against unfair foreign trade practices.”
Brown’s objection was spot on. But it did not end there.
The Democrat who, since the mid-1990s has been one of the ablest and most engaged analysts of trade policy, detailed the absurdity of Thursday’s rushed vote.
“Fast track authority hasn’t been debated in 13 years and this bill will allow expedited consideration of the largest trade agreement we’ve ever negotiated. More than 200 amendments have been filed by 46 senators, yet we’ve only voted on two,” argued Brown, the author of a highly regarded book on trade debates and policies, Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed (New Press). “With American jobs and more than 60 percent of the world’s economy on the line, we need to get this right.”
The Senate did not get it right on Thursday.
Specifically, the cloture vote limited debate and blocked amendments.
Practically, the cloture vote erected another barrier to the popular input and pressure—and the responses of elected representatives to this input and pressure—that makes real the promise of democracy.